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“I am from Delhi only.”

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 30, 2011 No Comment

Recently, exchanging pleasantries with a doctor in a suburb of Delhi, I responded, upon being asked where I was from, “I am from Delhi only” (feeling no little pride at my flawless command of Indian English). She shook her head and said, “No, your accent? You are not from here…” I sheepishly sputtered, “I live in California right now” (it’s been six years since I’ve been living there, but that detail seemed sufficiently captured in “right now”). I got the “lingo” right, but the rough edges of a telltale American accent gave the game away. Darn.

It is strange how the question “Where are you from” has become increasingly hard to answer when I return to India every year. When I was growing up in Delhi, when someone local asked me where I was from, I would say “I’m Bengali. My mother is from Kolkata, my father is a Bengali who grew up in Bihar. But I’m born and brought up in Dilli.” Being “from” some place indexed many different things-the language I spoke at home, my “primary” or home culture, my own individual affiliation, and other things…things that had to be peeled off, layer after layer, in response. Nowadays, if only when pushed, my answers become overly elaborate: I’ll say I’m (prabasi) Bengali, born and brought up in Delhi (sometimes I’ll call myself a Delhiite or Dilliwali, which I still think of as one of primary identities); give a bit of my parent’s background, say that I am studying and living in California (I’m not specific because I’m never sure anyone will recognize the city of Berkeley). Most often, though, I still try and trick people into believing I am just a Delhiite (this happens with greatest frequency, I must admit, when the opportunity for bargaining presents itself).

The glorious Taj (January, 2011)

The glorious Taj (January, 2011)

I become oddly proud of myself when people think I am local (I am, but I can only fractionally claim to be local anymore, right?). But sometimes, that recognition is jarring. Last year, I wrote up about a rather traumatic experience at the Taj, when my Indian identity was questioned. This year, I went in to the monument, no one asked to see my ID (though I was armed with my passport). At one point, while at the West Gate of the Taj, we-me, my husband and my father in law (both of whom are recognizably foreign-looking)-stopped at a telephone booth, and the attendant assumed I was a hired guide. He followed it up with a comment I’d rather not repeat, but the recognition that I was a “local” meant something. Strange, when I’m with one American, I’m assumed to be a foreigner. Make that two, and I’m a local. That is some weird math.

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